In Zane Wetzel’s mind, the images and sounds of that day are hazy and fleeting, like a faraway comet zipping across the sky.
A beautiful October day in Aroostook County, the leaves a mass of reds, oranges and gold. Blackness. The voice of an emergency medical technician calling his name. The soothing sound of his mother-in-law’s voice and urging her to tell his wife, Courtney, that he loved her.
And then he slipped away for 47 days and awoke to the realization that the path his life had been on somehow had veered while he was gone.
But this is not a story about a life-changing accident. Rather it is a tale about enduring love, unwavering faith and a couple who steered their lives back on course and constructed a road that would lead them to a place where they could help others.
It has been a little more than a year since the 26-year-old apprentice lineman for Maine Public Service Co. in Presque Isle suffered a flash burn to 50 percent of his body while working at the substation on Parkhurst Siding Road. His chest, back, arm and neck were burned in the Oct. 12 accident.
Wetzel was standing on a scissor lift with several other co-workers when a charge of electricity arced and touched the corner of the lift. The electricity traveled to the ground and bounced back, burning him. Safety equipment prevented Wetzel from being electrocuted and no one else was injured.
An investigation was completed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which told MPS to conduct refresher safety training. That was completed earlier this year.
Wetzel was in a drug-induced coma for 47 days in the intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He has endured about 11 surgeries, including several operations to graft skin from his legs onto his burns. In November, he was transferred from Brigham and Women’s to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He spent two weeks in that hospital and remained in Boston for outpatient therapy before coming home at the end of January. For several months, he spent up to 2½ hours a day, five days a week, at County Physical Therapy in Presque Isle working with therapists on exercises to increase his range of motion and mobility and improve his quality of life.
At their Mars Hill home late Thursday evening, Wetzel and his wife, Courtney, reflected on the past year. After Zane was released from the hospital, the couple began receiving invitations to speak at churches, Christian schools and other venues about the accident and its aftermath. They now have traveled all over New England and also spoke in Zane’s home state of Ohio.
“We always tag-team during these engagements because he doesn’t remember the first month after the accident and we had two different challenges,” said Courtney. “Mine was that I didn’t know if my husband would live. His was waking up and realizing the condition he was in.”
Wetzel still has virtually no memory of the accident beyond an EMT from Crown Ambulance calling his name over and over and hearing his mother-in-law, Paula Hartin, speaking to him at the hospital. Hartin is a nurse and was on duty in the emergency room at The Aroostook Medical Center that day.
“I remember I was scared and confused, and then I heard Paula’s voice and I calmed down,” he said. “I remember whispering, ‘Tell Courtney I love her.’”
When Courtney arrived at the Boston hospital a few hours after the accident, she repeatedly asked doctors and nurses if Zane would live. They just stared in silence.
“I really just had to put it in God’s hands,” she said. “I turned it over to Him.”
Zane’s family traveled to the hospital from Ohio to join Courtney and her loved ones. As they watched, he struggled. Feverish and thirsty, he thought he was being held captive in Mexico, the constant sedation leading him to believe that his captors were drugging him. His loved ones watched him kick and flail in his hospital bed, with Courtney humming “Amazing Grace” to him every night before she left.
The doctors assured her that one day Zane would just emerge from his sedation and start talking to her.
That day was Nov. 8. Although he was still on the feeding tube, he began eating his first real meal of peaches and ice cream six days later. To the amazement of his family and caregivers, he was well enough to make a trip home to Mars Hill in time for Christmas.
Wetzel’s last operation was surgery on his neck in June and he will have additional neck surgery in December or January. He also may be facing a procedure on his thumb.
“But hopefully, that will be it,” he said.
His physical therapy has decreased to three days a week and he is now lifting heavy weights. He has gained mobility and strength. He can lift weights over his head now, something he could not do in March. And he is very proud of the fact that his left bicep is now 14 inches around — just a half-inch smaller than his physical therapist’s.
The biggest change, however, has been the public speaking. The Wetzels are Seventh Day Adventists and both sides of their families are strong in their faith. The couple said they’ve had unbelievable reactions when they tell their story in public.
“I always tell them that your strength doesn’t come from you, God gives you the strength to get through it,” said Courtney. “Things happen for a reason, and you have to be strong.”
“And I always say that as Christians, we need to go through whatever God asks us to go through to bring others to Him,” said Zane. “And we need to share with others what He has done for us. We need to have faith that He loves us and will take care of us.”
During each session, he unbuttons his shirt and shows the audience his chest, which was the most severely burned in the accident.
“I am not ashamed of my battle scars,” he said. “And we always get a positive reaction when we speak — lots of tears and people telling us how inspired they were by our story.”
While in Massachusetts, Courtney kept loved ones and friends updated on Zane condition on her blog, projectprettyblog.com.
She frequently wrote about her faith in her entries. One day, however, someone asked a question that set her back a bit. The individual wanted to know if her faith would still be as strong if Zane had not survived the accident.
“If Zane hadn’t made it, my world would have been turned upside down,” she said. “But we believe that this life is just a fraction of eternity. Because of that, I know that God would have gotten me through and I would see Zane again and I would have had that message to share with others.”
The blog is now primarily back to its focus on interior design and home improvement.
Zane said that he frequently is asked if he wants to return to work again. He had been working at MPS for 10 months before the accident, and his father-in-law, Stan Hartin, also is employed there.
“I do want to go back to work,” he said on Thursday evening. “I will be going to the doctor soon to determine what sort of job duties I can perform.”
Since he can’t expose his skin to sunlight for very long and has poor circulation in his hands, which makes him more susceptible to frostbite, he cannot go back to his position as a lineman. Still, he wants to return to work in some fashion and has kept in contact with his colleagues, who he called “very supportive.”
The couple said they have amazing support from family, friends, the town of Mars Hill and surrounding communities. They credited medical staff at both hospitals in Massachusetts as well Zane’s team at County Physical Therapy for his recovery. They now are back to making plans both personally and professionally and looking forward to their next steps after a long journey home.